Shelter from the “Storm”

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Well, we all made it through February relatively unscathed. Weather records tells us that last month was the coldest month on record for Rome. Not just the coldest February; the coldest month. Let that sink in. That’s a pretty impressive feat, considering that they began measuring temperatures in 1857!

Weather can be like that. Awesome and impressive, sometimes scary. That’s mother nature for you. Any force that can bring hurricanes, tornados, volcanos, earthquakes, humongous sinkholes, the Northern Lights, Tsunamis, flash floods, and the like is a force that is not to be taken lightly. At times it is perfectly appropriate to be impressed and awed by our planet.

Shock and awe is something that our culture thrives on. Everywhere you turn (and I am guilty of this, too) people attribute words like “awesome” to everyday, slightly surprising occurrences. (Comedian Eddie Izzard has a hilarious routine about it; any joke that compares the “awesomesness” of a tasty hot dog with the true awesomeness of the cosmos is worth laughing about!)

It seems we have traded true, breathtaking awesomeness and magnitude for the figurative, and are now expected to respond in kind to this erroneous moniker. No where is this more evident than in the evolution of the weather report. When I was young, the weather report was pretty straightforward. Temperature; wind (or not); rain, sun, or cloud cover; and when it all was predicted to happen. It came on with the news at finite times (morning, night, and late night, on the hour on the radio) and that was it. It didn’t tell us how to act, it didn’t try to dictate our lives. It assumed that the average adult was smart enough to interpret the weather for themselves and their families. It’s raining? Said adult would be sure to grab and umbrella and wear a raincoat. It’s cold? Hat, gloves, muffler, and warm coat. Very cold? Try to get through your day without being outside much. And what’s more, said adult, if they had made the wrong decision and realized it once they were out, would alter their course and respond appropriately. End of story.

These days, weather is constantly available, on every news website. What’s more, there is a disturbing fear-mongering trend in weather reporting, and coupled with our society’s insistence that everyone be absolutely never at risk EVER just in case there might be some sort of litigious liability, it has created a monster. Every 2-3 inches of perfectly logical wintertime precipitation is now a “winter storm,” complete with a catchy name so we can remember the minimal dusting that it brought us. Every cold day is suddenly too cold to function, closing schools sometimes days in advance. Politicians are telling people something they should be able to decide for themselves: Don’t leave the house! It is much too cold for any living thing to be out!

Forgive the expression, but I feel that not only is this movement an awful lot of bunk, but potentially damaging in an area where tourism provides a large portion of the much-needed income for our communities, and where commerce still has to continue regardless of temperature. I am not that old, but even I can remember growing up at the base of Tug Hill and frequently getting copious amounts of snow. We shovelled out and got on with our lives. If it was cold, we bundled up. If it was not that nice out we drove slow. If it was truly bad, we, as cognizant humans, would decide on the appropriate action. No one needed to tell us what to be afraid of and how to act.

I am hopeful that we as a population haven’t lost our ability to make good decisions from the information given, based on logic and common sense. I say, if you hear a weather report, want to go skiing and think you can comfortably do so, do it! If you want to bundle up for the three minutes that you are outside and drive slowly to a movie or dinner, do it! Your local businesses, which thrive on your patronage, will be glad that you decided to think for yourself.

The Un-Lunch

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My grandmother turned 90 this past July. That is, as I would say and often do, an awful lot of livin’. She is a wise, sassy, funny, mischievous, lovely imp of a lady when she is at her best. I thoroughly enjoy spending time with her.

I made a decision–well, had a revelation, really–earlier this year that I was prioritizing the little nagging things in my life over spending time with the people I love, and I didn’t want to do that anymore. I would look around at all the things that remained undone and feel the pressure of guilt, which would motivate me to try to make a dent in them, even when I had the opportunity to spend time with family, primarily because it was the thing that silently shouted at my psyche. I felt like a bad wife and a lazy person, which I know isn’t really true, but winter is a complicated time for those with depression.

My mother and I had taken a day to go visit my grandmother a few weeks ago, and we had a lot of fun. My grandmother still lives where I grew up (most people call it “snow country”), and we arrived in the midst of a flurry of activity. It seems that, in its exodus from the metal roof, a large avalanche of snow had taken the chimney of the wood stove along with it, and a new pellet stove had been purchased as a replacement. All the men were hovering around in clumps, looking official, many trying to do as little work as possible but still look busy. My grandmother was in good spirits. Winter gets pretty lonely when it’s winter and you don’t have a lot of mobility, and an opportunity like this to have people around is not to be sneezed at, especially for a formerly social butterfly. Her hearing and vision are also gradually waning, so it can be a quiet, dark, lonely existence at times.

I decided that day that I would spend at least one of my days off per week spending time with her. I called the day before my first Thursday off, and offered to take her to lunch at Cracker Barrel (her favorite), a chance at which she jumped immediately. The next day dawned very cold, and I called her to let her know I would be a little later than I expected because I wanted to give Art a ride to work so he wouldn’t be out in the freezing weather. “We can cancel if you want to. It’s awful cold,” she said. I assured her that we were still on, that I was just running late, and that she should get gussied up for a day out.

When I arrived at her house, her back was to me and she was making a slice of peanut butter toast. She also looked decidedly non-gussied up. In fact, she was wearing her comfiest house-clothes and looked ready for a nap. I touched her shoulder and she looked at me with surprise. “I thought we cancelled,” she said. I laughed. “That was your idea,” I said. She looked crestfallen, and I knew I would have to act fast. “Do you still want to go out or should we stay in?” I asked. “Let’s stay in,” she said. So we did, and we had the best time. We had tea and reminisced, made some future plans for the house and the spring, caught up on each other’s news, and just enjoyed spending time together.

We often feel that occasions have to be special or planned to be most successful. With the ones we love, it couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s ok to let your expectations go once in a while and play it by ear. Who knows, you may find you’re making more memories than you thought.

The Snow Angel

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Ah, winter. Cloaked in white, sparkling in the sunlight, crunchy underfoot. If I had my druthers, I would sit in the library in a big comfy sweater with a nice cup of cocoa and gaze at it through the window.

Unfortunately, I can’t. Wintertime does not mean vacation time, and work still has to be done. People still have to go places, work hours, and run errands from warm(ish) car to cold air to warm store to cold air to warm(ish) car. And they generally have to do all of the brushing off (sometimes multiple times per day), and shoveling out that allows them to venture out into the world to fight the good fight.

At Pierce house, we live a one-shovel existence. We have no plow service or snowblowing capabilities. Art has his trusty snow shovel, and when the snow just keeps coming, the driveway gets narrower and narrower and the shed roof starts to leak from the accumulated snow. Were we 9-to-5 people, it would probably be feasible to keep up with the snow. But we are 8-6 people. Or 10-9:30 people. Or cram-everything-that-doesn’t-involve-work-into-the-one-partial-day-you’ll-have-off-this-week people. On occasion, we are all day and into the next morning people. Often, with long hours the shoveling falls by the wayside until it becomes such a problem that Art sacrifices sleep to take care of it.

One weekend day when our shifts started later than usual, Art went out to feed the animals and survey the snow scene. He returned inside looking somewhat bemused. One of our neighbors had come by our house and snowblowed our driveway. We had a Snow Angel. And he wore a yellow coat.

What a sweet and generous act. Though Art grew up in the house that we live in, and some of our neighbors have remained consistent, for the most part we and our neighbors have a wave-to-each other relationship, a ‘hi’ on the way to the car relationship. Not an ‘I’m going to bundle up and stay outdoors in the chilly temperatures even longer so that I can do a nice thing for someone I don’t know that well’ relationship. We all kept relatively to ourselves.

Because the Snow Angel was out of sight by the time Art returned outdoors, we weren’t sure who it was. I have visions of leaving a tray of cookies on every porch in the hopes of saying thank you to the right neighbor (and maybe encouraging others to pay some good deeds forward), but that seemed illogical. So we thanked him to each other and in our hearts and went on with our day.

Later that day and into the next, the Snow Angel continued to surprise us with a clean driveway. One night, we left work for home fairly late, musing whether the snow plow might have come by and how hard we would have to work to clear away the jam at the end of the driveway. We returned home to find a perfectly passable driveway opening, courtesy of the Snow Angel.

Snow Angel, if you are reading this, I know you didn’t feel you needed any recognition, but your kindness certainly means the world to us. Thank you for being the type of person for whom good deeds are a way of life, not a chance to be recognized. I can promise that if you come forward, you will get the biggest plate of cookies you’ve ever seen.

Down in the mouth

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My teeth and I haven’t always agreed. Though I went for semi-regular checkups as a child, for most of my adult life I had not had dental insurance and consequently avoided dental checkups. I had a few emergency visits, and one root canal with a temporary crown (that eventually fell out because they wanted me to get another procedure done that I couldn’t afford before they added a permanent crown. Sigh.) However, my teeth and I came to an understanding that something would need to be done.

I had had a business card for SUNY Canton’s free dental clinic, housed within the VA clinic on Brookley Road, for quite some time. It’s not that I’m afraid of the dentist; I was more afraid of finding out what was wrong with my teeth, and how expensive it might be. Estimates that I had gotten in 2006 (the last time I went to the dentist) indicated a cost far out of reach for our modest income. I needed two root canals, and four wisdom teeth pulled. In the years since then, I was sure that other things had cropped up. I brushed my teeth twice a day, but there are a lot of things that only a checkup can determine.

It was a topic that was constantly on my mind when I saw a notice from Alyssa, one of the students hygienists, that the clinic was accepting patients for appointments. I took that as a sign that I should finally give it a try. It was a resolution of sorts to get my teeth fixed this year, and I figured I would bite the bullet (not literally, of course. You’re not supposed to do things like that with your teeth).

I made the appointment for one of my days off, and arrived early to fill out my paperwork. The waiting room was full when I began, but by the time I was finished, each of the patients had followed a different hygienist into their examination room, and it was only me and a patient companion left. Everyone was so friendly, it felt like some sort of dentist wonderland. Though I know there are lots of friendly dentists and receptionists at dentist’s offices, most of the dentists I knew had the bedside manner of a stone obelisk; impressive but not warm.

Alyssa was very sweet, thorough, and a lot of fun. She seemed to inherently understand the things that people don’t like about going to the dentist (clinical manner, scary jargon, asking questions while their hands are in your mouth and you can’t respond) and made sure to eliminate them one by one. She explained everything that she was doing beforehand. When she found I had a fairly small mouth (yeah, if you know me you may not be aware of this), and adjusted the x-ray procedure accordingly. We joked that she was my x-ray personal trainer. When I thought I wouldn’t be able to bite down on the large, unwieldy x-ray film, she would set me right, knowing there was just a little extra room and if my ambitious tongue would get out of the way we could find it.

I left with an appointment for a follow-up and a reassurance that my teeth were far better than I had suspected. I also left with a sincere appreciation for the clinic and the work they do. If you need a checkup and don’t have insurance, they will take great care of you. It’s also gratifying to know that the hygienists, who are already well-trained, skilled, and supervised, are learning something new with every patient. Support them if you can.

Little Wild Woman

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At the risk of sounding like a crazy cat lady, this is another column about cats. The cat in question, however, is not one of our own cats or Kallie at the Capitol. This week I am cat-watching for my mother, and her cat is named Indy, or as I often call her, Little Wild Woman.

Before my mother moved to Rome she had a cat named Grace. She had adopted Grace, along with her sister Mittens (who had passed away previously) as a kitten, and they had been through a lot together. Grace was one of those cats that thought of herself as almost human. It was just her and mom, and they were best friends and companions, to the point where Grace barely tolerated anyone else who arrived on the scene. She was grouchy and disdainful, but to my mother she was sweet and affectionate. In the midst of my parents separation, Grace passed away and Mom was devastated. I knew that Mom missed having a little furry friend around the house, so after a certain amount of time had passed, I began to subtley encourage her to do what she had already been thinking of doing: find another cat to call her own.

Grief for a pet can be complicated, sometimes more complicated than with grief for a human. There is a sincere sense of “replacement” if a new pet is gotten too recently after to a late pet; perhaps because our pets are smaller and non-verbal we think of them, even in death, as something we need to protect. But at long last, Mom was convinced. I recommended that she look for a new cat at the Humane Society of Rome.

Mom took a few trips there to look at potential candidates. She wanted a black cat, which are always (thought inexplicably to me), easier to find at shelters because of the strange superstitions of many people. My mother was seeking out a black cat; she knew just what she wanted. She settled on one whose shelter name was Aria, a little wild child that she eventually named Indigo–Indy for short.

Indy is the antithesis of Grace. There is nothing calm or retiring about Indy. Indy was runner, jumper, lover of toys, naturally verbal, wiry, and frenetic. As an “only cat,” she has become adept at playing by herself, weather it be the end of the feathered, squeaky fishing pole, the crinkly tunnel, or the wiggle worm, one can sit and watch her for quite a while before she gets tired out. She’s a little wisp of a cat (Grace was big-boned), and stealthy. She will often arrive on the scene undetected and startle a person when they turn around.

It is evident in every thread of Indy’s body how happy she is to have found a forever home. She cuddles and hugs like it’s going out of style, she would rather be around people than eat if given the choice, and she meets everyone, friend or stranger, at the door with the same enthusiasm. She certainly is a sweet little cat.

Mom said once, shortly after she got her and not terribly long after Grace’s passing, that though she liked Indy very much, she hadn’t started to love her yet. What she really meant was, it takes time to let someone new into your life, and the grief may lessen but won’t ever completely go away. She now loves Indy unabashedly and can’t wait to see her when she gets back.

It can be hard to make a new start when a void is left where a loved one was, and it may take time to let a new potential loved one in. Sometimes the effort seems harder than the alternative. Trust me, though, there are people and pets in the world who will greatly benefit from your love and affection, and I think you’ll find that you can enrich your own life by letting them in when the time is right.

Green-tinted dreams

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It’s been pretty chilly lately, as is often the case in wintertime. I am not one of those who “hates” winter; rather, I tend to observe the passing of the seasons with a fatalism that keeps me from joining the cacophony of people who claim that our area would be so much nicer if we went right from fall to spring. I have not found many places that experience three seasons. You seem to either have four or you kind of have one or two.

My favorite part about this time of year is the seed catalogs. Long about mid-December, they begin to pop up in my mailbox like plants started from seed, their little green faces waiting for the son that comes when I open the mailbox door. I take them inside, sit on my couch, and dream.

I have wanted to start a garden for several years, stopping just short each time like a child his first time on the high dive. I think I am still a little scared to live up to the gardens of my past. My grandparents used to have the most interesting garden, a rather large one to the right of their rabbit shed, and it grew all sorts of things. Tomatoes and onions and lettuces and watermelons and corn, all in neat rows. When I would play with my cousins, I liked to sneak into the garden, not to hide during our numerous games of hide-and-seek, but to look at the plants. Fruits and vegetables fascinated me. I was the rare child who didn’t mind snapping beans or shelling peas. There was something comforting and regular about the repeated movement, and the feel of the fuzzy pods or pointy ends that made me feel that all was right with the world. Even my mother’s small plots (she liked flowers best) seemed ambitious, having so many opportunities for failure. It all seemed so complicated, so much work, for something that may not, ultimately, work out after all.

Seed catalogs represent many different things to me. They mean new beginnings. They mean vitality. Sometimes, if I jump too far ahead in my mind, they mean death: crop failures dot the catalogs, a dream of a crop gone wrong, where weather or pests wiped out so many that they are unable to fill seed orders with the survivors. They mean world travel; often, the seeds come from different countries, either brought here by immigrants or given as a gift across cultures. They mean heritage and history and family. At least they do to me.

Though I actually like winter, as I do all of the seasons, I have a little nostalgia for the vernal equinox, and a hope that this year may be the year I put my other personal and professional obligations aside and carve out some time to dig in the soil. For now, I’ll look out the window and dream of the first signs of spring.

Skinny Cat

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Art and I have a cat named Sam. Though Sam predates me by several years, he has finally accepted me as a co-habitant (after 7 years of thinking about it). Sam also has hyperthyroidism, an endocrine disorder that often visits cats in their old age. Sam, by our estimates, is about 16, though we’ll never really know. Sam adopted us after his original owner threatened to leave him out in a cage to freeze to death. His offense was helping himself to a sandwich. He has always been a very hungry cat, but now he is also a very skinny cat; our featherweight weighs in at 4.7 lbs., an increase of .5 lbs. since he began treatment for his hyperthyroidism.

Sam has always been the quirkiest of cats, with a mouth that won’t quit and a sense of entitlement that rivals anyone I’ve ever met. People who see pictures of him say he looks like a little lion, albeit a slightly raggedy one, and he, of course, thinks of himself as king of the savannah. He is predicably neurotic, to the point where we can anticipate his reaction and (usually) act accordingly. He also has an insatiable appetite for everything, whether he actually wants it or just believes it to be so. No amount of cajoling, begging, or disciplining can change his mind. Though I can usually guess his next move, he still astounds me from time to time, from up-ending a pre-prepped root vegetable casserole only to decide that it didn’t look that good after all, to singeing his whiskers trying to get at a full pot of soup, eventually knocking the pan off the burner and enjoying the newfound puddle of piping-hot liquid on the freshly mopped floor.

These incidents used to frustrate me terribly, but now I’m kind of resigned. He was a pretty hungry cat before, but his disorder makes him feel like he is constantly starving and convinces him that he may never get another meal if he doesn’t act RIGHT NOW. He can’t help himself.

Resigning myself to Sam’s misdeeds has allowed me to be less stressed in general. The first time I took him to the vet to figure out why he was losing so much weight and seemed even hungrier than usual, he was his normal vocal self, but after we got home he would seek me out. If I were lounging on the couch he would curl up on my shoulder, next to my head. If I were in the library he would come in and sit on my lap. He would sit on the piano while I was folding laundry and chirp at me. This may not seem that different to you, but for the first 7 years that I knew him, Sam would completely ignore my presence, hoping that it would make me go away so that he could spend more time with Art. Somehow, through the adversity of going to the vet for his diagnosis, we had weathered a storm together (or so Sam thought) and come out as partners.

I have also learned to plan around Sam so that his bad behaviors don’t sidetrack my life as much. I know, because he tends to steal way more food than he can handle from the other cats when he is in perceived starvation mode, he gets sick more often than many cats. I keep things tidy to make sure that he isn’t ruining anything of value when the time comes. I know that if I am not vigilant when I am cooking with milk that Sam will find a way to stick his face in it when I’m not looking, so I keep a better watch than I used to when it comes time to put together a recipe. These are just things that I’ve grown used to; where they used to cause stress, they have simply become part of my regular routine.

There are some things in life we can’t control, no matter how much we would like to. Sometimes they are people, sometimes they are situations, but one thing is for sure: once you decide that something isn’t going to change and make the best of it, your outlook will improve greatly. Next time you feel stressed about something that seems to happen repeatedly, try acknowledging that it happens and that it isn’t going to change. Then make the best of it. You may finds that the Sams in your life become a lot more endearing.